TAMPA - Renee Converse still remembers how vivid that morning was. “February 19, 1993,” she says. as she rocks in the recliner of her St. Joseph home.
You get the sense she hates to talk about it, but knows she must. For Jennifer.
“It was a normal day,” she recalls. She walked her 12-year-old daughter, Jennifer Odom, to the end of their sandy gravel driveway and watched her get on her school bus. “She waved goodbye and I went on to work.”
It would be the last impression Jennifer Odom would etch into her mother’s mind. And fittingly, it was of a little girl who was happy.
February 19,1993. A day when an unspoken evil came to St. Joseph in Pasco County. It skipped the pastures of cows and rows of orange groves and stopped at a line of mailboxes where Jennifer got off her school bus alone.
Her 9-year-old sister Jessica came home one hour later to a locked front door. “She used to lock me out of the house. So I went up to grandma's house because I was mad and I wanted to get her in trouble.” Jennifer used to play tricks on her little sister from time to time. This was one of them. But on this day, it was no game.
And what soon followed changed not only a family, but an entire community.
Night fell and hundreds of volunteers would scour the woods and fields for six days looking for Jennifer Odom. It was on that sixth day that a couple found her murdered.
The partially-clothed body of the athletic, pretty, and highly intelligent 7th grader would be discovered amongst the woods and orange trees of neighboring Hernando County. The recent rain washed away all crucial evidence.
That was 18 years ago.
Since then there have been thousands of tips to police and several persons of interest , but Odom's cold-blooded killer has never been found.
Kids on the school bus recall a blue pickup truck near her stop when she got off. The tip never panned out. “They had thousands of leads,” Renee says as she sighs.
Renee recalls in the months leading up to Jennifer's murder repeatedly sitting both her daughters down to instruct them on how to get away from an attacker as they walked home from school. It was if a mother's intuition was eerily clairvoyant.
“We talked about it. We played it out everyday. If something wasn’t right, drop your stuff and run. Zig Zag the orange grove,” Converse remembers.
The Converse home used to sit nestled among rows of orange trees. The Odom girls knew the ins and outs of the layout. They played there for years. “The fact that we knew not to get in the car with anybody and we practiced it just doesn’t make sense to me. So that part of me makes me think it was somebody that we know,” says Jennifer’s sister Jessica. She is 27 now. She is a mother.
For 18 years, the family has struggled to understand who could have killed Jennifer. “Is it somebody that we eat dinner with on a regular basis? Was it somebody who helped out with the search? Was it somebody who came and gave me a great big hug and said ‘I’m really sorry’?” And is that person still in their lives? Or was it a random killer?
“It is the most troubling case for me personally,” says Colonel Michael Maurer with the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office. He was there 18 years ago when Jenny's body was discovered.
Coincidentally, he was there two years later when a couple, walking in the woods, found Jennifer's backpack. It would be the first solid piece of physical evidence in the case.
He remembers a patrolman leading him to the backpack and with his police flashlight, lifting the bag open to see a library book with Jennifer’s name on it. He immediately got goosebumps. “I remember saying, ‘Everybody just back out’ and that’s when the patrolman goes, ‘Whoa!’ and he stepped and he looks down and I look down and there's the clarinet case.” Inside would yield a partial fingerprint, not from Jennifer.
That evidence now takes up rows and rows of boxes and binders. The most space out of any cold case in Hernando County. It sits in a FBI hard drive. The print is constantly checked against a national criminal database.
Recently, every Monday, Hernando's Cold Case team sets aside that day alone to look over Jennifer's evidence again and again. They hope it’s for the last time.
Just last week, investigators received a tip. Whether it is credible is something they cannot say. But they say it proves that this case is far from cold. “There is just too many messages that we're not supposed to give up on this case,” says Maurer.
You get the sense that he believes Jennifer won’t let them give up.
But ultimately it may not be evidence, but the human need to purge a soul to make things right. Maybe then, St. Joseph will go back to what is was before February 19,1993.
For Jennifer Odom’s mother, it would bring some closure. “We were always the people that thought ‘No it's not going to happen to us,’ and it did. So you cant ever not tell them enough that you love them because one day they might not be here.”
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